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The World Trade Organization:
What's the Fuss?

By Joel Ohringer

With the passing of the recent World Economic Forum, the entry of China into the WTO, and U.S. steel duties currently under attack, globalization is still making the headlines. A lot has happened since the landmark protests in Seattle. TREND looks back at those protests, focusing on the peaceful activism underreported by the media at the time.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) was created in 1995 as the successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). GATT was established after World War II as a set of rules regulating trade among member nations. The WTO mission is to promote unrestricted "free" world trade. It sets trade policy for all member nations. They also hold judicial panels where WTO-appointed judges rule on disputes between nations or claims of unfair practice. 

Supporters believe that unrestricted free trade promotes the economies of all member states, at least in the long term. The reality is that average weekly wages for workers in 1998 were 12 percent lower than in 1973, adjusting for inflation. Critics oppose the WTO on many levels, including labor, environmental and health issues. The developing nations question their ability to be included in key decisions and feel that the WTO is promoting the interest of the richest countries.

Why should you be concerned? The objective of completely unrestricted trade is diametrically opposed to the concept of fair trade. This is because according to this view, any possible hindrance to trade must be eliminated, including labor laws that prevent child labor, public health measures, and environmental protection initiatives. Unrestricted trade makes the poor poorer, the rich richer; supports the interests of corporate entities over real people; makes our food unsafe, threatens our future existence. 

No Globalization without Representation
Why should you be scared? The WTO governs without direct representation of the people. The United States of America was founded in part with the cry "No taxation without representation." U.S. taxpayers support the WTO, as the United States contributed $13.2 million to its operation in 1999. 

Integral to our beliefs is a system of checks and balances and elected representation. The WTO is comprised of non-elected trade ministers. The trade ministers receive advisement from the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation and the Industry Functional Advisory Committee whose 800 members include private industry representatives and CEOs of corporations such as Monsanto and Chrysler. 

Key decisions are made in closed meetings, often by a limited number of developed countries. Cases are decided in secret by a panel of three trade specialists (often corporate heads) not bound by any "conflict of interest" rules. The WTO is itself unmonitored and operates outside of any one country's monitoring. The judges have presided over 100 cases to date, and every single environmental or public health law ever challenged at the WTO has been ruled illegal.

Not only is public input excluded, WTO decisions actually supercede our own domestic laws. Once a ruling is issued, losing countries have to choose (1) change their law to conform to the WTO requirements, (2) pay compensation to the winning country, or (3) face non-negotiated trade sanctions. The WTO has the absolute authority to supercede local, state, and national laws if a corporation pressures its government to challenge a particular mandate.

The WTO overturned a Massachusetts law that would have barred them from investing state money in Burma due to its atrocious human rights record. Under this ruling, the boycotts against South African apartheid would now be illegal.

Four Asian nations challenged provisions from the US Endangered Species Act forbidding the sale of shrimp caught in ways that kill endangered sea turtles. In 1998, the WTO ruled that the U.S. was not in compliance of WTO rules and deemed that requiring shrimp nets with inexpensive "turtle excluder devices" was "WTO-illegal."

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Photos by Joel Ohringer


"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes
me to tremble for the safety of my country. ...Corporations have been
enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money
power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the
prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and
the Republic is destroyed."
-- Abraham Lincoln (1864 letter to Col. Leonard F. Elkins) 


Archived "The View From Here"

The Italian Project:
A Cross Cultural Encounter

By Charles loVerme

An intimate look into a group of Italian hipsters
as they reflect the cultural changes taking place in contemporary Italy.




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